Thursday, November 19, 2015

Days 41-50: Panama and Loading Up For Colombia

To begin with, Panama reminded me very much of the US, and it still does in many ways. In the northern part of the country, the orange construction markers appear to be like the state flag. Yup; very US.  That pic was in the last blog. Bruce: “They put all this construction up so you think they plan to fix these crappy roads!” Lots and lots of neighborhoods with homes that look identical. Yup. Looks like many US deed restricted neighborhoods.

Even some of the individual homes look like they were just plucked up out of rural Florida or someplace similar.

And the scenery looked like Florida scrub land in the rainy season with some hills added to the distance – or the scrubland of just about any place that has both a rainy season and hills.

We stopped the first night about 150 miles into the country. Since it was raining, we decided to eat at the first place we came to, which was – Dairy Queen! Guess what! You can’t get a hamburger at Dairy Queen here! Three different versions of hot dogs or grilled cheese type sandwiches. That’s it for the main course. Banana splits were the same, though, and they sold Dilly Bars and Blizzards.

We were kinda trying to hurry to get to Panama City to get the truck inspected and loaded on a container for Cartagena. Our shipping agent had indicated that he had a shipping partner for us so we could split the cost of a container. We learned that night, though, that the shipping buddy was for the wrong week and the following day was one of the Panama Independence days. So, we just slept in and took a leisurely drive to Panama City.

Our first glimpse of Panama City was the Bridge of the Americas. We’re just scooting along, and suddenly, out of nowhere, out pops the Bridge of the Americas, and we’re driving over the Panama Canal! I almost wasn’t ready for it! Both sides of the bridge have a thick, steel mesh. They REALLY want to be sure you don’t drive off the bridge into the canal. You can see the Biodiversity  Museum in its colorful, new building though the cage, too.

Coming off of the bridge, you get a glimpse of the Panama City skyline.

I had a shipping agent and container lined up for the truck, though the dates weren’t firmed up yet. Now, to find a way to ship Bruce and I across the Darien Gap. For those of you who aren’t  familiar with it, the Darien Gap is about a 100-mile (160-km) stretch of jungle along the border of Panama and Colombia. It is the portion of the Pan-American Highway that was never finished. Thus far, there are no plans to finish it, either. To my knowledge, one person has crossed it completely on land in a vehicle, and he did it with an expedition team. Made the Guiness Book of World Records, and I believe it took him over two years. Some teams have carried special rafts and floated their vehicles down rivers significant distances to facilitate the crossing, making it in a much shorter time. We just didn’t feel these were options we wanted to explore at this point in our lives, so we’re shipping via container ship to Cartagena.

For transporting us, I found sailboat cruises, doing island hopping around the San Blas Islands. Cheaper than airfare, too! Since we didn’t have a confirmed shipping partner, we were pushing it to be able to get inspected and loaded in time to make the November 15 shipping date, and taking that shipping date would mean we would have to fly to Cartagena instead of take a sailboat, we decided to hang out in Panama City for an extra week. It would not only fix the above issues, but also give us a chance to see some of the sights and rest our weary bones (and let me tell you, these old bones are getting pretty weary!)

I had started experiencing some computer problems on our last night in Costa Rica. My computer was unable to locate networks or connect to them when it did locate them, even though there was no connection problem with either Bruce’s computer or my phone hooking up to the hotel wifi. From what we had seen walking around, electronics seemed to be relatively cheap here, so we decided to replace my computer here instead of having to do it in Ecuador where the import taxes will eat you alive. Off to the mall we go!

Allbrook Mall is huge! The different entrances are marked with different animals. I especially liked the orange and white zebras! And, the Christmas display was beautiful! We found a nice laptop for a really good price after applying the Black Friday sale price (which they did early), and headed for the food court. We’ve been eating typical foods in the neighborhood of our hotel, so we did some US fast food again. Popeye’s Chicken this time. Not really our best move. They laughed when I asked for spicy Cajun chicken. There were no Cajun mashed potatoes – just seasoned French fries. The cole slaw wasn’t bad, though. For the record, McDonald’s Big Mac tastes the same.

Trying to get back to the hotel was a little interesting, though. The front desk of our hotel told us that taxis hailed on the street were safe in Panama City so long as you take the yellow ones with the black and white and the number on them (basically a Checkered Cab). It cost us $5 to take a taxi from the hotel to the mall. Our cabbie was Daniel. Remember him, he’ll show up again later.  For the trip back, it went like this. We stepped outside the door of the mall. Some gentlemen were standing around offering taxi service. I asked, “How much to the Hotel Bella Vista?” “Ten dollars.” “Ten dollars? It only cost us $5 to get here from there.” “Okay. Five dollars each.” “That’s too much. I won’t pay that.” “These are special taxis.” “What is special about them?” “They are safe.” “Other taxis are safe. Five dollars total. That’s all.” “Don’t you care about your safety?” At which point, we just turned around and went back in the mall. I had neither the interest nor the language skills to argue with them. Out a different door, we got a cab to the hotel for $4.

My new computer did the same thing as the old one. Apparently, it wasn’t my computer. Not sure what the problem is, but hope it quits soon.

So, back to Daniel. When taking us to the mall, he started talking about different sights in Panama and asked what we were doing at the mall. I told him we were going to pick up some things, have some lunch, and catch the hop-on/hop-off bus to see the sights. He offered to take us around and show them to us personally for $10 an hour. The HO/HO bus was going to be $30 each for a 24-hour ticket. More for longer. He gave me his number in case we wanted him to give us a tour. Folks, just so you know, the best tour guides I’ve had have been cabbies, and Daniel certainly didn’t disappoint!
We started at the church of Don Bosco, officially the patron saint of young people and apprentices. Unofficially the patron saint of street magicians. Beautifully built with arches and openings allowing a nice, cool breeze into the church.

Next stop, the boxing gym where Roberto Duran trained. Daniel escorted me down on the floor and introduced me to several of the boxers and the primary trainer. He and the trainer pointed out what championship many of them had. I’m going to have to start watching boxing now just to remind myself who I “knocked gloves” with.

We went up on the Cerro Ancon, the highest point, and enjoyed the views, even though it was hazy out.

And on to the Miraflores Locks. The ships were scheduled to come in several hours after we got there, so we didn’t wait for them. There was a neat film in the museum, and even though it wasn’t 3-D, the way it was all set up, you almost felt like you were on the ship navigating the locks.

We saw the Parque National. It was billed as a protected wildlife sanctuary within the city limits of Panama City; that you could walk the trails and see various species of monkeys and other animals indigenous to the area. I was expecting the trails to be unobtrusive or maybe a caged walkway or something with the animals having primary access to the park. But, no. All except one set of monkeys were caged. All of the animals have apparently been rescued and cannot be returned to the wild, though. A gorgeous golden eagle flew in and walked around in front of us, though. And, that was awesome!

Then, the Biodiversity Museum and several other places with breathtaking views. Finally, we got worn out, and it was starting to get dark. So, we had Daniel take us back to the hotel. He said we had three more things to see, but we just couldn’t see any more. We were beat. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to call and have him take us to see those last three things. The Trump Tower doesn’t really interest me, though, and that was one of them.

The next day was spent recovering from our day of sightseeing and getting ready to get the truck shipped.

Monday morning, and time to get the truck inspected and officially certified for shipping to Colombia. Be there at 9:00 and have copies of the TIP into Panama, the insurance, the title, and the owner’s passport. For those looking for the location, the coordinates are 8.966387,-79.544905. There is no signage, but it looks like the picture below. If you have made it to the corner, you’ve gone too far. Apparently, the inspectors don’t come out while it’s raining, so we all sat and stood around waiting. But we got to meet our shipping buddies, three young boys from Switzerland who are exploring the world after finishing university and before settling down into their respective careers. They bought their car in Alaska to drive to Argentina, where they will sell it.

When it quit raining, the inspectors came out, took my copies, looked at the VIN number, and told us to come back in the afternoon(with more copies), across the street, to get the Secretary General’s signature on the certificate. So, we came back in the afternoon, got lost a couple of times looking for the place, and finally got the certificate. That part worked well, too.

After getting the certificate, the guys from Switzerland wanted to take a day to get their car serviced and pack everything for the container. Sounded like a plan to me, so we let Boris from Everlogistics (the shipping agent) know we would like to load on Wednesday. We spent Tuesday laying around thinking about what we needed to do. I also made all the copies Boris said I needed, so not a completely wasted day.

Wednesday morning, bright and early, we packed everything we weren’t going to need on the boat and headed to Colon. Unfortunately, we also packed the sunscreen into the truck, so we have to get more before we get to the boat.

The layout of the roads in Panama City are highly confusing to put it mildly. They are not in a grid pattern. The one-way streets are not alternating so you may go a km or so before being able to turn the way you need to turn. There is at least one street on which you drive on the left-hand side of the road (but there are no signs telling you that). Heading to Colon, we learned of another issue with the roads: Corredor Norte. Corredor Norte is a toll road. You must have a PanaPASS sticker to drive on the Corredor Norte. It is a $15 fine for each turnstile you pass without a PanaPASS sticker on your car, even if they let you through the turnstile just to stop you from blocking it. We got stuck on the Corredor Norte. At the first turnstile, she let us through, fined us and sent us on our way. At the second turnstile, he made us make a U-turn and go back without going through and paying the fine. We went in circles until I started crying, called Boris in Colon, and he got us headed off the Corredor Norte and onto the right road to Colon, after talking to the guy at the turnstile for me. When we finally made it to the rendevous spot, I was never so happy to see a Domino’s sign in all my life! (We were all meeting at this Domino’s.) We were only 15 minutes late.

We all convoyed over to customs and took care of that paperwork.

Then, we headed to the loading yard. The containers were on the flatbed trailers that would carry them to the port, and there were no dock ramps. Instead, we backed the truck up on a wrecker, and the wrecker lifted the truck (and Bruce) into the air. See how unconcerned he is?

They backed the wrecker up to the door of the container.

This still left a step that whas too high to drive over, so they used a bar on the back of the flatbed truck holding the container to raise the bed of the wrecker up almost level with the floor of the container, and Bruce just drove right on in.

I can't seem to get this last video to load through Blogger in spite of meeting all the requirements. So, I loaded it into youtube and tried to embed it. Hope this works!

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I shared it at the top of the blog in case the link doesn't work.

There was some discussion over whether he was going to be able to get out after driving in. I was waiting for them to start up a pool on whether he would make it. We all cheered when he was able to squeeze through and join us after the truck was loaded.

And the truck is now loaded and ready to ship to Cartagena. We have an e-mail address for the shipping agent who will meet us in Cartagena, instructions of what to do and bring, and a link to track the ship. It should leave port on Sunday and arrive Monday. We’ll be on our sailboat trip, though, and won’t be tracking it. The guys have a later sailboat than we do, so they asked if we could leave the car in port for a few extra days at their expense so they could see the islands, too. We said sure, and figure that gives us a couple of days to see Cartagena and rest before finishing up the journey.

The next post will be after we take the truck out of the container. So far, I highly recommend Boris at Everlogistics for shipping from Panama to Cartagena. We’ll see if I still recommend him when the trip is over. I anticipate that I will.

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